Friday, July 25, 2014

What Is a Church?

As my wife and I prepare for our move across country, one of the many questions that nags at us is, "What do we want in a church?" The question seems positively quaint, I suppose, in the grand scheme of history; for increasing numbers of people, the answers to that question range from "We want a church that contributes to the tax base of our community so our property taxes can be lower," to "We want a church that minds its own business." Meanwhile, however, for evangelicals such as we, what we want in a church is a natural and even necessary question. Evangelicalism has been, historically, among the more entrepreneurial movements in Christian history, such that local church cultures are notably distinct from one another (even though by and large they read the same books, listen to the same radio stations, and play the same music at roughly the same volume).

So we have to ask, and I suspect we will have to take our time in discovering the answer. But the process will be helped, I think, by wrestling with a prior question: What exactly is a church?

Much noise has been made in the past several years that a church is - contrary to popular, unconsidered opinion - not a place but a people group. We don't go to a church; the church of which we are a part gathers together in one place. It's this distinction that sets up the old evangelical joke: "Going to a church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car." Trust me, it's funny if you're an evangelical. But more recent conversations are uncovering an even finer distinction, one that centers on why we gather.

Why we gather is an increasingly important question because increasing numbers of people reject the premise: If you decline to gather as a church, then the reasons why you would gather become irrelevant. The jokes that challenge this "leaving" phenomenon, of people who practice their faith outside the confines of Christian community, have yet to catch on. And really, how could they? They're really hard to make: "Not going to church doesn't make you a non-Christian any more than not being in a garage makes you a non-car." What? It doesn't work.

TWEET THIS: "Not going to church doesn't make you a non-Christian any more than not being in a garage makes you a non-car." What?

It's possible to make too much of the exodus of disaffected Christians swearing off organized religion, but it's equally possible to make too little of them, especially those of them whose faith remains vibrant and, in some cases, becomes more personally meaningful and culturally significant. These folks may have left the church, institutionally speaking, but theologically speaking, the church has not left them. They can't not wrestle with the meaning of this phenomenon of church, spoken of in such sweeping, emphatic language in the Christian Scriptures that it clearly must somehow exist.

So, in what form must it exist? What makes a church a church? What have we imposed on the concept of church over the course of multiple millennia? What do we strip away from it at our peril?

Another shift is in order, I think, one that is talked about in a number of circles: a shift from the notion of church as an institution, even an immaterial institution overarching our individual faith practices, to church as a movement.

When we think of movements, we don't think of church per se. We think of Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, which organized and mobilized largely through church gatherings. We think of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker Movement, advocating for immigrants and other marginalized people in the shadows of big cities. We think of Lech Walesa and his Solidarity Movement in Poland, resisting the oppression of the Soviet Union and leaning on the support of the Catholic Church. So I suppose when we think of movements we actually do think of the church - only not in the way we typically think of church.

Writers and thinkers in the missional church conversation have leaned in to this understanding of church as less an institution and more a movement. Steve Addison of Move (a missions agency in Australia), as only one example, has read the New Testament and the broad arc of Christian history through the filter of movements; he sees five "key commitments" as central to any successful movement and as undercurrents of the church's movement through time:

  • White-hot faith - a very conscious confidence that the values driving the movement are pure and right and good.
  • Commitment to the cause - no ambiguity about what constitutes commitment and who counts as committed.
  • Contagious relationships - a real charisma to the people advancing the movement, grounded on real concern for the "unreached."
  • Rapid mobilization - a sense of urgency mobilizing and actualizing the high commitment of the devotees.
  • Adaptive methods - perhaps the most vulnerable of the five keys, a freedom to experiment and an honest though undeterred assessment of existing constraints.
But maybe the most important aspect of a movement - and the easiest one for American evangelicals to lose sight of, given the emphasis on the individual so prevalent in our cultural context - is that a movement is fundamentally communal. You can't be a part of a movement by yourself.

TWEET THIS: A movement is fundamentally communal. You can't be a part of a movement by yourself.

This shift toward thinking of church as a movement throws open the whole meaning of church. The language of church is now interpreted communally, contextually, as the movement takes shape in each particular place. (For an example of how these implications might tease out, take a look at the book The New Parish by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen, founders of the very movement-friendly network of churchy people Parish Collective.)

We've had our expectations shaped by all these conversations, which means among other things that we won't so much know what to look for when we move across country as we will know it when we see it. So as we go looking for a church in Colorado to park ourselves in, I hope that what we'll find when we get there is not a consortium of institutions but a network of people following Jesus together, both locally in small gatherings and collectively in culturally meaningful ways. I hope that when we go looking for a church, we'll find ourselves caught up in the movement of God.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Best of InterVarsity Press: Reflections on My Last Day

July 11, 2014, marks my final day as an editor for InterVarsity Press. IVP was my dream job when I arrived seventeen years ago, even though I was convinced at the time that I'd only be there a year or two. I had bigger fish to fry back then, and IVP was just a way to put some bacon back in my piggy bank.

Nevertheless, I was quickly labeled a "lifer," with some of my colleagues comparing me to coworkers who'd been there for decades. And now, decades later, I'm finding it hard to leave. IVP has been the site of many life-changing conversations, the point of origin for many lifelong friendships. It's where I discovered my vocation and began to live into it. It's where I honed my craft as a writer and experimented with other avocations, from public speaking to improvisational comedy. The running debate at any organization like IVP is whether it is best thought of as a business or a ministry, but for me IVP has always made the most sense as a family, a community.

As such, when I think of the "Best of IVP," I don't think first of the books we publish, which is where the mind of the typical consumer would probably go. I think of the authors I've edited, the colleagues I've worked together with, the "friends of the Press" I've shared meals and jokes with on the road. They deserve their due, so I acknowledge them all here. I'm sure I'll neglect more names than I'll list, but I hope you all know who you are, and what you've meant to me over the years.

So here, in no particular order, are the best of IVP.

Forge America
I stumbled onto the Forge Mission Training Network a few years ago; Forge America based itself in Chicago's western suburbs, not far from where I live, and I went to some trainings out of curiosity. Scott Nelson was my early guide; it's appropriate, then, that he eventually wrote five Forge Guides for Missional Conversation for IVP.

Through Scott I met the adorable Kim Hammond, Forge's (now) international director, whose thick Australian accent has made phone calls nearly impossible but whose warmth and humor have made every encounter memorable. Gradually my contacts with Forge expanded, leading me to a wildly entertaining dinner with Lance Ford and Brad Brisco, and fun and gracious conversations with Ryan and Laura Hairston, Kimberly Culbertson, Eric Lerew, Hannah Seppanen and any number of other great folks.

Somewhere along the way I worked up the courage to strike up a conversation with Alan Hirsch, whose intellectual heft and inherent coolness made me assume wrongly that he was unapproachable. I got over that after my first "Hirsch sandwich," when Alan and his wife, the equally brilliant and incredibly endearing Debra Hirsch, simultaneously kissed me on both cheeks. I've been working with Debs on her forthcoming book Untaming Sexuality for some time now, and while I'm sad I won't be at IVP to see it roll into the warehouse, I'm excited for everyone who gets to read it for the first time.

And then there's Mike Frost, who lives in Australia but travels regularly to the States. I'm in awe of him every time he speaks, whether from the stage at a conference or from the back seat as we're driving around Seattle. His book Incarnate was my precious while he was writing it and I was editing it.

Through Forge I got to meet a number of other friends, including the delightful and sharp Jo Saxton, the innovative JR Woodward, and theo-guru David Fitch. Forge is highly relational and not artificially bound by institutional divisions; they welcome and befriend all, and they encourage the same in the people they meet. May their tribe increase.

Forge Books from IVP
Forge Guides for Missional Conversation
Creating a Missional Culture
More Than Enchanting
The Missional Quest
The Story of God, the Story of Us
Dwell (forthcoming)
Beyond Awkward (forthcoming)
Untaming Sexuality (forthcoming)

Red Letter Christians
Under the auspices of the legendary Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, and guided by the leadership of Brian Ballard, there has coalesced a network of writers, thinkers, activists and ministers who are inspired by the possibilities that unfold when we read the Scriptures through the lens of the teachings of Jesus, rather than the teachings of, for example, the Apostle Paul. I met most of my friends in Red Letter Christians before I had ever heard of such a thing, but the annual RLC retreat has become a highlight of my year. There are plenty of attenders of this retreat I've never had the pleasure of editing, but then again every year I reconnect there with around fifteen IVP authors, some of whom have become dear friends.

Long, heartfelt conversations with Chris and Phileena Heuertz, Andy Marin, Bart Campolo, Tony Jones, Mark Scandrette, Kent Annan, Sean Gladding, Hugh Hollowell, Lisa Sharon Harper, Leroy Barber and others; robust conversations and even debates about the appropriate Christian participation in the pressing concerns of the world; howls of laughter and occasional tears. The dear and brilliant Richard Twiss offered a formal blessing to each of us at a Red Letter gathering; two months later he died without warning, and we were bound more tightly together by our shared sorrow at his passing.

Last year we released the first ever RLC-branded book from IVP: Faith-Rooted Organizing by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel. I'm hopeful that we'll continue to see the RLC logo on future books, signaling the distinct and compelling vision of the world that comes when we put Jesus first.

IVP Books by Red Letter Christians
Faith-Rooted Organizing
Everyday Missions
After Shock
Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle
The Unkingdom of God
Practicing the Way of Jesus
Simple Spirituality
Pilgrimage of a Soul
Love Is an Orientation
Rescuing Christianity from the Cowboys (forthcoming)

A few years ago the good people at Christianity Today launched a blog, Her.meneutics, to showcase the best of robust thinking and good writing among women of evangelical faith. I was inspired by this vision of giving space to women thinkers without partitioning them off into so-called women's issues, and I began regularly to look to them, and other coalitions of women writers, for authors to work with. The result has been truly gratifying, both in the relationships I've developed and the books I've had the chance to edit.

I've since managed to be the token male at not one but two gatherings of the Redbud Writers Guild ("Fearlessly Expanding the Feminine Voice") and edited three of the first four books to be released in IVP's Crescendo line of books by women. I've occasionally found myself in the midst of some uncomfortable conversations, and experienced more directly the gulf of understanding between men and women, but I've also gotten the chance to participate in the bridging of that divide and, along the way, to be guided and led by some remarkable women.

Crescendo Books and Their Offshoots
Refuse to Do Nothing
Breaking Old Rhythms
The Easy Burden of Pleasing God
Troubled Minds
Teach Us to Want
Anxious (forthcoming)
Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going
Commitment Phobe (forthcoming)

In 2006 IVP launched a seven-year experiment in galvanizing an audience that had proven hard to galvanize: young evangelicals, newly out in the world, stress-testing the received traditions of their evangelical upbringing. Likewise Books were about social responsibility, shared spirituality, creative missiology and a world of possibility. In the process of developing this line I met some real characters and developed long-term relationships. I've mentioned many of the authors and books that fell under Likewise already, but there are many more than that, and they like Likewise itself, defy easy categorization. They're friends, and I'm glad I had the excuse to work with them while I was at IVP.

Likewise Books and Their Offshoots
Pure Scum
Community Is Messy
Faith Without Illusions
God on Campus
The Cost of Community
The New Friars
Living Mission
Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem
Letters to a Future Church
The Circle of Seasons
This Ordinary Adventure
The New Conspirators
Flirting with Monasticism
Mobilizing Hope

Everyone Else
I know I'm forgetting people who I will never forget. The Wild Goose Festival, the National Youth Workers Convention, the Christian Community Development Association, the Missio Alliance, the Parish Collective, Radio Free Babylon--these and other networks and events have been the breeding ground of new friendships and creative collaborations over the years.

  • Lynne Baab
  • Brian Godawa
  • Noel Castellanos
  • Steve Addison
  • Dale Hanson
  • Scott Boren
  • David Dark
  • Ken Gire
  • Wayne "Coach" Gordon and John Perkins
  • Garth Hewitt
  • Daniel White Hodge
  • Amy Jacober
  • Mike King
  • Terry Linhart
  • Marie Little
  • Deborah Loyd
  • Brandon McKoy
  • Chad Meister
  • Tim Morey
  • Mark Oestreicher
  • Lindsay Olesberg
  • Wayne Rice
  • Matt Rogers
  • Andy Root
  • Tom Ryan
  • Brian Sanders
  • Jason Santos
  • Amy Sherman
  • Carol Simon
  • Chris Smith and John Pattison
  • Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen
  • Andrew Wheeler
  • Dave Wilkie
  • Matt Woodley

And more and more and more and more. Thanks to all of you, mentioned and unmentioned here (not least of which are all my coworkers, for whom colleagues seems too stuffy and friends seems too casual). It's an axiom of business that "everyone is replaceable," a kind of coping mechanism during times of transition. But I think it's also true that everyone is irreplaceable. I'm reminded of John Donne's genderized lament of death:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were
I'm not dying, I'm just moving on. But it's not easy to move on, and I'm glad it's not. Life would be much less if leaving were easy. Leaving IVP is hard in part because life is good.

There's a good life out ahead of us all, however, and I look forward to the irreplaceable friendships I'll make at and through NavPress in the years to come. Till then, thanks IVP and everyone it signifies; you're the best.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sherlock Holmes Blushing: Writing Tics and Glimpses of Humanity

I've recently begun reading the collected novels and short stories of Sherlock Holmes as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. I'm a trend-hopper, I admit it. I geeked out over Sherlock and enjoyed the different angle on Elementary; I even like Robert Downey Jr.'s turn in two films that imagine Holmes and Watson as the original dynamic duo, the earliest ancestors of Batman and Robin, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Riggs and Murtaugh, and the Men in Black.

So, in between seasons, I thought it'd be fun to read the stories, set in their original context of late-nineteenth-century London. I was thrown by the horse-drawn cabs, the handwritten letters, even the "evening newspaper." But the thing that really threw me was the notorious absence of Holmes's catch phrase: "Elementary, my dear Watson."

I'm 900+ pages into volume 1 and not once has this phrase appeared. I recall one time Holmes described some conclusion as "elementary," but only in passing. I recall one time he referred to Watson as "dear," but in that case Watson was "my dear friend" - hardly a string of words for the ages. I'm led to surmise that catch phrases aren't a product of Victorian England; they belong, rather, to Hollywood.

Do you want to know what does, apparently, belong to Victorian England? Writing tics and lazy editing - in this case, in the form of the archaic word singular.

Google singular and you'll be directed to 26 million occurrences on the Internet. But at least for me, the first occurrence declares it a typo: according to, "a common misspelling of Singulair. Singular (montelukast) is used for the prevention and long-term treatment of asthma." That in itself is lazy editing, since clearly "Singulair" is a portmanteau created, probably by someone in Hollywood, for the pharmaceuticals industry. The word singular apparently dates back to the fourteenth century, derived from an old French word which itself was derived from Latin. Singular is defined by the Online Etymology Dictionary as ""alone, apart; being a unit; special, unsurpassed," which is basically how it's used in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, ad nauseum.

TWEET THIS: Do you want to know what does, apparently, belong to Victorian England? Writing tics and lazy editing.

Seriously. At least once in every story I've read so far. Usually at least twice. Sometimes twice in the same paragraph. The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, describes cases, visages, personalities, weather patterns, meals, mornings and evenings as "singular."

I find that a bit ironic. That's the correct use of ironic, right?

I track the use of singular in Sherlock Holmes stories with the same glee and cynicism with which I tracked the use of "at this juncture" by my college political science professor. Such is the social dysfunction of an editor that other people's communication foibles simultaneously annoy and fascinate me; I'm more impressed with myself for having noticed this tic, and I elevate my own editorial competence by inwardly shaming the editor who let Sir Arthur Conan Doyle get away with it. It's one of the many ways that I dehumanize people: I make fun of how they write.

And honestly, it's pretty easy to dehumanize Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his editor. For one thing, they're dead; they can no longer dehumanize me back. For another thing, their humanity has been in some ways eclipsed by the enduring notoriety and cultural resonance of this character they curated over the course of many years and pages. It's Holmes we care about, and to a lesser extent, Watson; Doyle and editor X are beside the point.

Holmes himself is not quite human; he's an icon of rationalism, noticing and following the evidence systematically, cooly and objectively. Emotions are a distraction to him; relationships are an acceptable inefficiency. We accept this about Holmes, even celebrate him for it. But occasionally Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reminds us that Holmes is human too, as in this scene, from "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons":

Lestrade and I [Watson] sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke out clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes's pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause. The same singularly proud and reserved nature which turned away with disdain from popular notoriety was capable of being moved to its depths by spontaneous wonder and praise from a friend.
So there you have it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes blush. He even stuck a singular in there, and the scene remained heartwarming anyway. It seems Holmes and Doyle are both human after all. And if Sherlock Holmes can blush, then I suppose there's hope for the rest of us.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Refugees Are People Too: Some Resources for World Refugee Day

Some problems are global problems, and when you scale out problems to the level of the globe, it's hard to keep the fine points of detail in view.

There are over 40 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. These are people who have been forced to flee their home countries (or to flee within their home countries) to escape persecution (either direct and individual, or as part of a "persecuted social group") or the effects of war and other conflict. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 80 percent of refugees and internally displaced people are women and children.

So often a day is all we have time for, but so often a day is all it takes to open our hearts.

For the past several years the U.S. State Department has admitted around 80,000 refugees annually into the United States. The home countries of these refugees are distributed throughout the world, and percentages per region are adapted according to need. A number of non-governmental agencies assist in placing these refugees throughout the United States, some for short periods until a safe return home is possible, and many for permanent relocation.

These are all big numbers. What's worth thinking about is that upwards of 80,000 times a year someone is moving into a neighborhood who has never been in the United States before. They're figuring out how stuff works. They're learning (often the hard way) which of their local customs will or will not be tolerated in their new community. They're learning new languages and new monetary systems, even new street signs and rules of the road. They've left something awful and landed in the midst of something bewildering. They need good neighbors.

I'm privileged to be on the board of a group called Exodus World Service, which in Chicago recruits churches and other groups to welcome refugees to the community, with move-in packets of necessary resources, with visits and meals and playdates, and more generally with enough expressions of kindness and support
to make the refugee's resettlement a little less unsettling. The
logic of Exodus requires that people be willing to step out of their comfort zone and enter into the awkwardness of a new, cross-cultural friendship. Sometimes these new relationships click, and sometimes they don't. But the value is in the trying, in the welcoming.

Getting up the courage to initiate with someone from literally the other side of the world can be a bit of a challenge. So today, on World Refugee Day, may I recommend a couple of resources that will shore up your strength?

Immigration, by Dale Hanson Bourke. This brand new book starts with the assumption that Americans are perplexed by immigration. Dale does the hard work of sifting through the enormously complex immigration system in the United States, as well as the incredibly complicated world refugee situation, and filtering down to the most helpful basic information - enough to overcome the intimidation factor and allow you to see refugees and immigrants for what they are: human beings with often difficult life stories who don't need to be rendered as statistics but rather cared for as human beings made in the image of God - as neighbors, which is what they are. Full-color photographs and helpful charts and figures throughout. Order it direct from the publisher here.

Ah Mu Weaves a Story, by Sarah Gilliam. This beautifully illustrated book tells one family's story of their journey from Burma to the United States. Written for children, it inspires resilience and hope while gently introducing the challenges refugees face both at home and in their resettlement. Children will love it; adults may well weep over it. Order it direct from the publisher here.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. The name of the event is a nice juxtaposition: "World," because this is one of those global problems that so easily overwhelms us; "Refugee," because those 40+ million refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world, those 80,000 refugees recently resettled in the United States, each have their own stories to tell, their own grief to bear, their own needs which only a friend can attend to; "Day," because so often a day is all we have time for, but so often a day is all it takes to open our hearts to a whole new world. Whether you get hold of these resources or not, I hope today you'll join me in praying for refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world, and I hope you'll consider how your story and that of a refugee near you might intersect.